My Great Aunt Mabel was a nurse in the Army Nursing Corps during World War II. She wrote dozens of letters home to her family and a few years ago my mom gave me copies of them. The locations from which she sent them tell a story of their own: Camp Hale, Colorado; Charleston, SC; San Francisco, CA; Somewhere on the West Coast; Somewhere on the Pacific; Australia; New Guinea; Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea; In a Hospital Ship on the High Seas; Manila, PI; Clark Field, Luzon. Her letters are a fascinating glimpse of a woman I don’t remember meeting — of that time in her life, as well as that period in our nation’s history. In fact, they were the inspiration for a central character in the book I’m currently (re-)writing. It seemed appropriate to post excerpts from a couple of them today, Memorial Day. So we don’t forget.
This is the beginning of the first one she wrote:
Camp Hale, Colorado
Jan. 12th, 1943
This is the army sure enough and it is everything they said and more. So far we have gotten a tremendous kick out of it all – certainly is different. The place is so new it isn’t completed by a long ways. They are beginning to get more and more supplies now so expect the worst is over. The first nurses came about Nov. 26th and there wasn’t a thing they say. They really started from scratch! All they had was aspirin. They were so happy when they finally got some sulfathiazole.
[Note: Sulfathiazole is a sulfa drug once widely used to treat bacterial infections. In a letter dated Nov. 1944, from the 247th General Hospital in New Guinea, she wrote: Sir Fleming was here not so awfully long ago. That penicillin is wonderful.]
Here’s another one from when she was still stateside:
Stark General Hospital
Nov. 6th, 1943
Over last week end we got orders to evacuate all or as many as we could of our patients to other general hospitals. This place seemingly will be a debarkation hospital and we were to get ready for a convoy… hospital ship full of casualties from overseas. So Monday A.M. early we took about 200 patients to Lawson General near Atlanta on a hospital train. Those ward cars are quite completely and conveniently arranged and had some unusual incident occurred enroute I’m sure we could have mastered the situation. I had charge of the litter patients. The road bed between here and there is horribly rough and we were well shaken up – everyone was hungry constantly it seemed. I did so well walking up and down the aisle that maybe after the duration I’ll get myself a job as a conductor on a train. My uniform skirt seat is shiny now so I’ll continue to wear it. A conductor isn’t complete and proper unless he wears a shiny threadbare suit I feel. We didn’t arrive there until almost midnight and that according to authorities is too late to unload – so we sidetracked about half a mile out and we all stayed on the train for the night. Early in the A.M. we reluctantly gave up our dear boys – sent them over to Lawson in ambulances. We didn’t even get to see the place. They fed us our breakfast on the train and we even had fried potatoes. From then on they restricted us to the Post so we would all be within shouting distance should the Convoy come. Yesterday was a big day in the history of Stark General. There will no doubt be many more days like it as these ships come in and give us these patients for us to have for a few days – re-classify and then send out to the various hospitals elsewhere. We were all so impressed by the whole thing. This was the first time most of us have seen a group fresh off the boat. It is hard for anybody to explain just how you do feel when you see 790 of them brought in in all shape and conditions. Most of them were speechless – they were so tickled to be back. You never saw more smiling faces anywhere – and many it would seem have very little to smile about. When we finally had them checked in and they knew it wasn’t just a dream their first and foremost concern seemed to be “when do we eat?” “can we really have milk?” “do they have more hamburgers?” etc. etc. No one complained and I don’t suppose they ever will again.